The Surprising Value of Obvious Insights

Confirming what people already believe can help organizations overcome barriers to change.

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People Analytics

This limited series from Spring 2019 focuses on how managers can use data and analytics to persuade decision makers, assess talent, and facilitate personal growth.
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Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about people analytics.

A few years ago, the people analytics experts at Google stunned me with one of their recommendations to managers. They had been studying how to onboard new hires effectively. After running surveys and experiments, they came back with a list of tips. Here’s the one that jumped out at me:

Meet your new hires on their first day.

People analytics has transformed HR and talent management into a data-driven field. Since Google was a pioneer in the field, I was expecting an aha moment. Instead, I got a duh-ha moment — a sudden flash of the blindingly obvious.

As an organizational psychologist, my trade has been to highlight the counterintuitive, the unexpected, the overlooked. For the past decade and a half I’ve regularly referred people to classic advice from sociologist Murray Davis: If you want to be interesting, challenge the (weakly held) assumptions of your audience. I’ve argued that it is not storytelling but questioning conventional wisdom that makes Malcolm Gladwell fascinating (though he found that point obvious from the get-go).

Google’s analytics team had done the exact opposite of all that: They had confirmed the most banal of my expectations. I felt like I was hearing from Pelé that the key to becoming a great soccer player is wearing shoes. Who needs to be told to meet their new hires on their first day? What kind of manager wouldn’t do that?

A busy one, it turns out.

When Google sent an email nudging managers to take simple onboarding steps — talking with people about their roles and responsibilities, for instance, and scheduling regular check-ins — their new hires got up to speed a month faster.

I was wrong to place such a high premium on the unexpected. Findings don’t have to be earth-shattering to be useful. In fact, I’ve come to believe that in many workplaces, obvious insights are the most powerful forces for change.

A few years ago, I was working with a bank to improve the attraction and retention of junior employees. One of the clear problems was the reward system: Individual rainmakers got promoted to partner even if they were terrible managers. When I shared evidence that takers do more harm than givers do good and that the

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People Analytics

This limited series from Spring 2019 focuses on how managers can use data and analytics to persuade decision makers, assess talent, and facilitate personal growth.
More in this series

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Comments (4)
Mohammad Mozafari
What a great article ... I like it ...
Managers often do not have management training. They were promoted due to technical skills (best case) or politics (worst case). Being a subject matter expert is OK for training, but employee development and performance require coaching, like in sports, to show how their skill set and role integrates with, and helps the team or organization succeed. Respect and opportunity are key to employee satisfaction and potential contributions. 

A further elemental factor is that HR departments are typically staffed with HR specialists, who never worked in a job requiring teamwork and demanding high performance. As such, they are ill-suited to guiding or introducing effective measurement tools to evaluate employee and manager effectiveness.
Jane McConnell
Agree with David Light! Adam saying you don't have to be counterintuitive is counterintuitive! I love it!
David Light
I like it. It's counterintuitive...unexpected...